Anniversary Party

With its cool looks and astonishing performance, this Z07-equipped Centennial Special Edition Z06 is a Corvette worth celebrating.

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December 16, 2011

CHEVROLET SELLS MORE SILVERADO PICKUPS THAN ANY OTHER VEHICLE IN ITS LINEUP—no less than 288,824 of them in 2010. Given this fact, it could very well have offered a Centennial Special Edition version of this truck. It didn’t. Instead, Chevy chose to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding with a special-edition Corvette. As he was first and foremost a race-car driver, Louis Chevrolet would have liked it that way.

The Swiss driver would have definitely been smitten with the Centennial Special Edition Corvette on these pages—a 2012 Z06 equipped with the Z06 Ultimate Performance Package (option code Z07), which includes race-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires. In terms of cornering grip and lightness, this is the raciest Corvette available. Whether or not Louis Chevrolet would have appreciated his likeness depicted on the model’s decals is another matter. After all, it wasn’t his idea to establish the Chevrolet Motor Car Co.; that was Billy Durant’s doing.

Compared to previous commemorative-edition Corvettes, though, the Centennial package is quite restrained. Available on all 2012 Corvette models (with some minor differentiation though the same ZLC option code), this $4,950 option group includes Carbon Flash Metallic exterior paint, a pair of almost-imperceptible grey racing stripes and a host of subtle decals. The wheels on all Centennial models are painted Satin Black, with the special lightweight alloys fitted on Z06s and ZR1s receiving a strip of red paint on the outermost edge of the rim—a look that is a little too aftermarket in our book. All models, including the ZR1, have their brake calipers painted red. The same color scheme is picked up on the inside in the form of red stitching, black leather and swaths of grey synthetic suede. The headrests are embossed with checker-board pattern that includes the number 100, and the steering-wheel center is special—the Z06 has Louis Chevrolet’s visage.

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Buyers must remember, however, that it is an option group and there is no limit on the number of 2012 Corvettes that will be fitted with it. The fact that checking the ZLC box is the only way to get a black Corvette in 2012 almost guarantees it will be a popular option. In other words, collectors shouldn’t start storing these cars in hermetically sealed garages. They are meant to be driven, and in the case of this Z07-equipped Corvette, driven hard.

AS WAS THE CASE IN 2011, THE Z06 ULTIMATE PERFORMANCE PACKAGE features a number of ZR1 items, including that supercharged model’s massive carbon-ceramic brakes and Magnetic Selective Ride Control (MSRC) shock absorbers. It also includes ZR1-sized wheels and tires, although the 2012 package’s 10-spoke alloys weigh about five pounds less than the 20-spoke ones offered last year and are shod with the aforementioned Michelin semi-slick tires. (This rolling stock is available as a stand-alone option on the ’12 ZR1.)

Also new for 2012 is the inclusion of Performance Traction Management (PTM), an ultra-sophisticated adjustable electronic driver-aid system that debuted on the ZR1 in 2010. Another change is the fact the $7,500 Z07 package must be ordered in conjunction with the $3,995 Z06 Carbon Fiber Package (CFZ), which includes the ZR1’s carbon-fiber front splitter and rocker panels (painted black, not clear-coated), as well as its full-width rear spoiler. Chevrolet says it now considers the ZR1’s aerodynamic enhancements mandatory given the new Z07-equipped Z06’s higher roadholding limits. Equipped with the $8,815 3LZ Premium Equipment Group, our $101,760 (including destination charge) test car was missing just a single option: the $2,495 carbon-fiber hood.

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IT’S HARD TO SAY WHICH ASPECT OF THIS Z06 WOULD HAVE MOST IMPRESSED LOUIS CHEVROLET the most, but the car’s phenomenal grip would have blown his mind. It did ours. Even with its standard Goodyears tires, the Z06 delivers fairly stratospheric limits of adhesion; fitting it with a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cups launches the car’s cornering ability into another galaxy. The extra grip these soft semi-slicks provide is immediately noticeable. They allowed the Corvette to sail through tight corners with such ease that it was scary to fathom how much faster we could have driven through them. Attempting to plumb the depth of the car’s grip on the street would entail so much speed as to be foolhardy—which is why we were glad that we had signed up for an autocross event in Camarillo, California, just north of Los Angeles.

But before we get to the cones, we need to say a few words about two other new-for-2012 features—the redesigned seats and steering wheel. Sixth-generation Corvette seats (and C5 ones, for that matter) have been roundly criticized in the motoring press for their lack of support during hard cornering maneuvers, and Chevrolet finally saw fit to do something about it. However, regulatory, budget and time constraints prevented it from installing a brand-new pair of chairs, so atop the existing frame and safety hardware rest reprofiled bolsters and an altered seat back that includes shoulder wings not unlike those on C4 sport seats.

Are the new seats a big improvement? In a word, no. Just to throw out a figure, we’d say they’re 12-percent better. The shoulder wings do provide added support, but just a hint—the wing shape is more of an aesthetic statement than an ergonomic one. The story is largely the same with the recontoured seat bottom. The biggest improvement in terms of the seats holding occupants in place is the material that covers them. The synthetic suede inserts, which come standard on the Centennial Special Edition package and are otherwise optional, are much grippier than the standard leather. We advise all 2012 Corvette buyers to pony up for the faux hide.

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As with the seats, the 2012 steering wheel represents more of a reskinning than a redesign. The spokes now feature some shiny, Cadillac-esque trim which nicely dresses up the wheel, giving it a more upmarket look. The slightly thicker wrap is also a welcome change. Another mod is the addition of thumb rests, which sprout from the rim interior. The problem is, unless you have giant mitts, actually using them involves moving your hands up from the optimal “three and nine” position. As far as these new interior mods are concerned, form has won out over function.

Now back to those Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, which are all about function. First of all, in most situations they’re almost eerily quiet. A surfeit of grooves generates noticeably less tire noise than the standard Goodyears—a welcome change, especially on the highway. This combined with the supple ride quality of the MSRC shocks in their Tour setting made this Z06 a surprisingly comfortable freeway cruiser. However, the Cups are so sticky that they tend to suck up small stones and other detritus laying on the road, not unlike four massive Hoovers. Unfortunately, these vacuums don’t empty their contents into a bag; they launch them into the fender wells. The resulting racket often left with the sensation of driving down a gravel road, even though we were on pavement.

The other drawback of such soft-compound rubber is tire life. With a treadwear rating of just 80—compared with 220 for the standard Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2s—the Pilot Sport Cups are not long for this world. Nor are they designed for wet or cold weather. According to GM, “They are competition-oriented tires, optimized for warm, dry conditions….” Thankfully, that was exactly the weather forecast on the day of our autocross event.

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THE SKY WAS CRYSTAL CLEAR AS THE SUN ROSE OVER CAMARILLO AIRPORT. We’d already snapped dozens of photos of the Centennial Special Edition Z06, taking advantage of the soft, pre-dawn light—shooting a black car in direct sunlight presents its challenges. The unused portion of a landing strip was already filling up with cars. Though the Santa Barbara region of the Porsche Club of America organized the autocross, the event was open to all comers. The field was exceedingly diverse, with more Honda S2000s than Porsche 911s, a VW Rabbit and plenty of Lotus 7s. We weren’t the only ones with a Corvette. Ron Posen had entered his supercharged ’06 Z51 coupe and the father/son duo of Paul and Stephen MacFarland would be sharing their modified ’01 C5.

Our goal for the event was not to set the top time of the day, but to get a feel for our Z07-equipped machine in a safe and controlled setting. We’d also been given fairly strict marching orders by Chevrolet: It only wanted us to perform two timed runs. Before we arrived in LA, we thought tire wear was Chevy’s biggest concern, but after discovering this Z06’s propensity for kicking up stones, we realized our press patrons were probably more worried about the paint.

After our car passed its tech inspection (the 500-mile odometer readout must have been an all-time low), we proceeded to the driver meeting. Event chair Martin Keller emphasized the fact that, relative to previous courses at the same site, this course was particularly fast, with one straightaway where some of the cars might hit 100 mph in third gear—a rarity in the coned confines of autocrossing. We were excited to learn that the course would provide the opportunity to stretch the Z06’s legs a bit and put its Brembo brakes to the test.

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We took one practice run to try and learn the track before paying attention to the clock. As it turns out, the course was a lot tighter than we had thought—our wide-body Corvette felt very wide indeed—and that seemingly long straight was over in a flash.

For our first timed run, we put the PTM in its #4 or “dry” setting. (Optimized for wet conditions, the #5 setting is the most intrusive in terms of traction- and yaw-control intervention.) We had already placed the MSRC shocks in their stiffer Sport setting. Both of these tasks are accomplished via the same large knob located directly ahead of the center arm rest.

With a wave of the flag from the starting official, we were off. Soon we were negotiating the slalom portion and realizing we could carry a lot more speed through this section. We pushed harder through the next sequence of corners, and as the car started to rotate we felt the PTM kick in, well before it seemed necessary. We then exited onto the straight at full throttle and grabbed third gear just before nailing the brakes. Then, before we knew it, the Corvette had broke the timing beam and we were creeping back to the end of the line, reflecting on our run.

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The Z06’s lack of body roll and brake dive serve it well given the constant direction changes a gymkhana course demands. The incredible front-end bite generated by the sticky Michelins allowed us to turn into corners with astonishing speed. We were surprised at how well the Z06 put down its 470 lbs-ft of torque. The PTM system was clearly playing a big role in this, though it was far from overbearing. Still, we thought a touch more wheelspin would probably make us faster. Before coming up to the starting line, we switched PTM to its #3 setting. (The #2 setting disables the yaw control and allows for even more wheelspin, while the #1 mode provides only mild traction control.) We also decided to leave our braking even later at the end of the straightaway.

The flag waved and it was time to get busy. With the tires still warm from our previous run, the Corvette clawed at the tarmac with even more conviction, allowing us to ramp up the pace. Through a long 180-degree corner, we could really feel the g forces build and were glad for the new seats’ extra support, however minimal it may be. We were also happy to have some electronic assistance at the exit of this turn as we launched onto the straight and started to drift sideways. PTM corrected the slide with an uncannily deft touch, allowing us to maintain our exit speed. (This bit of electronic wizardry would really have boggled Louis Chevrolet’s mind.) We kept our foot in third a bit longer and got on the brakes as late as we dared. Now that the tires were fully up to temperature, the grip they offered under braking was simply phenomenal. Again, we wished we had waited longer to get on the binders. A few corners later, the run was over.

We’d cut our time by two seconds. Though we were satisfied by this accomplishment, we have to admit it was mighty hard not to go for another run. With our minds literally racing with ideas about how to lower our time—more speed through the slalom, switching PTM to its #2 setting, use Launch Control at the start—we drove straight into the paddock area and parked the Corvette, consoling ourselves in the knowledge that we’d accomplished what we set out to do. Plus, our last day with the Z06 was far from over. We still needed to drive to LAX and drop it off, and a fellow autocrosser had given us the killer coastal route to get there.

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AFTER ABOUT HALF AN HOUR ON THE 101 FREEWAY, we arrived at the Kanan Road exit. Rising and falling like a giant roller-coaster, this serpentine ribbon of asphalt would deliver us to the Pacific Coast Highway. The Z06 seemed much happier with this habitat than the autocross course, a tiger freed from its cage. We were able to wind out the gloriously free-revving LS7 in third gear and much of fourth before braking for some of Kanan Road’s sweeping bends. The sticky tires and heroic brakes gave us loads of confidence, and we were comforted in knowing that PTM had our backs. Though we weren’t getting anywhere near the car’s limits, we were having huge fun. The Z07-equipped Corvette’s added performance can be enjoyed on the road, and doing so took our breath away.

Just like with our autocross runs, our canyon charge was over all too quickly. We soon found ourselves on PCH, stuck behind a long line of cars creeping along at 45 mph. But the Pacific Ocean, dazzling in the bright sunlight, soon came into view—as did an assortment of cool cars, including a vintage Camaro SS convertible. Suddenly, it seemed as if we had driven into a picture postcard, so surrealistically perfect was the scene. We wouldn’t have been surprised if Louis Chevrolet had magically appeared in the passenger seat—though he would have preferred to be behind the wheel.

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Photo by Rick Soto
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